Han Swolfs (Hantrax)

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“You should really meet Han,” some of our mutual friends proclaimed. Our meeting had indeed been long overdue but we hadn’t yet been able to make it work—until today. I cheerfully ring one of the doorbells just around the corner of Zurenborg’s Dageraadplaats. My friends weren’t mistaken: Han and I quickly find ourselves hitting it off.

Coffee is served, home-made biscuits, chocolates and a glass of water included. The ritual takes time, just like the cigarette breaks Han takes every so often during our long conversation. Han proves to be an excellent narrator and somewhat of a restless soul, but being around him, his restlessness feels reassuring. Han allows himself the time and space to question himself. Little to my surprise, his record collection grants a unique insight into a life full of extremes, heartfelt passion and creativity.

Ill-fitted

Active as a musician and performer under his Hantrax alter ego, Han is not one to be categorised easily. His 2016 album 'Ticker Tape Parade', released on Palermo Records, bursts with provocative electronics whereas Han’s most recent record 'Gazebo Compositions' features minimalist piano. “I learnt to play the piano back when I was attending an art high school in Brussels. Even then, music was the only thing I cared about, really, so art education was the only option for me as a teenager. During lunch break, we used to check out all the record stores around. I must have been thirteen or something when I bought my first records. I didn’t fit in all that well at school, but since I was totally into old school hip-hop, the other kids more or less accepted me anyway.” 

When he turns sixteen, Han salutes his Brussels’ habitat to enrol at the Jazz Studio in Antwerp. He soon discovers jazz, but equally delves into eighties new wave and becomes fascinated by electronic dance music. “I got to know Stijn (Vandeputte, also a musician, red.) when my father was taking singing classes from his mom. He was a bit older than me and took me to parties in squats and the likes. Breakbeat and crazy fast electro were all around back then and I fell under the spell of DJ’ing and beat-mixing. I took a job in an Antwerp comic store, earned 14.000 Belgian francs and bought my very first record player. I used to play at parties myself sometimes. This Electrecord release for instance dates from around that time. I used to buy stuff like this at Stereophones or from Koenie at Wally’s Groove World, back when he was still located in USA Import’s basement.”

Polanskian torment

Another one of Han’s passions which rooted around the end of his teenage years was the one for low budget movie scores. Through the soundtrack for Roman Polanski’s 'Frantic', produced by Ennio Morricone, Han discovered a subgenre of tormented characters caught up in love stories, rainy sceneries and dramatic endings, popular mainly in France. The accompanying soundtracks and their dreariness were of much appeal to Han: “Collector in Brussels used to have records like that. I got a hold of the 'Extérieur, nuit' soundtrack there, for example.” 

“It wasn’t until later on that I took an interest in the movies themselves. I would buy them on DVD every now and then, but I generally didn’t succeed in actually watching them since they’re so very poor. Regardless, I loved the themes and atmosphere of the genre so much that I started producing that kind of music. And sure, I probably wanted to be one of those tormented characters myself, but I guess that today, I’m happier hanging around the apartment all nice and quiet.”

Klankmeanders

Han’s love for music did not come falling from the great blue skies. Both his parents are passionate about the art of music. Han’s father Hendrik is an amateur opera singer and a record collector as well. Their shared passion for modernist classical music even led to the weekly radioshow 'Klankmeanders', broadcast by Antwerp’s Radio Centraal every Tuesday from 11 to 12 o’clock. “As far as father-son-bonding goes, that show is a true blessing. My father has been knee-deep into music since the sixties. He taught me so much and he still does, but today, our cultural exchange works both ways. 'Trois Visages De Liège' by Henri Pousseur is one of those records you could hear on our show.” 

Han’s mother equally grew up listening to records and Jef, a long-time friend of the family to whom Han dedicated his piano based record on Ekster, passed a great deal of vinyl along to him. “The poor guy has got Alzheimer’s now, which worries me a great deal. I really cherish a big part of his collection. The lovely thing about it is that most of his records are truly in mint condition. He treated them with great care. For example, this one by John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy was a present from Jef. It reminds me of my time at the Jazz Studio too, where we constantly had to copy solos from jazz records.”

Piano, punk & jet-black pulses

Han puts on some more piano sounds. We are listening to Béla Bartók, one of his Berlin flea market trouvailles, when suddenly one of the windows blows open and swivels straight towards the record player’s needle. Han is just in time to prevent the fatal crash from happening and grabs a punk album from the early 1980s. The pounding boyish voices by Peter and The Test Tube Babies all too quickly make us forget about the soft piano notes.

“I was into punk for a long time while growing up. It grasped me as a genre because of the political undertone and the grittiness of the production.” Yet another switch, this time towards British techno by Citrus, popular among Belgian club kids in the nineties. This is followed by electro tracks by the Dutchman Ferenc E. van der Sluijs under his Beverly Hills 808303 moniker. "I really looked up to Ferenc and the whole world he stood for. That sinister and industrial vibe, I breathe that kind of stuff.” 

The gift that keeps on giving

That being said, we are headed towards the end of our tour on planet Hantrax, but we are not going anywhere before we find out where Han gets his dose of vinyl nowadays. “I get my records from all over, but I recently visited Doctor Vinyl in Brussels and enjoyed it a lot. You can really dig the crates, listen to some 50+ records, mess around a little bit and it’s all good.”

“I’m fond of Veals&Geeks too. This one’s also in Brussels but, unlike Doctor Vinyl, is very well organised. In Antwerp, I bought a few pieces of jazz at Tune Up some time ago and I checked out Warrecords, a new joint in town. I was surprised by their choices and the guy who runs the place is really cool, I’ll pass by again for sure.” On my way out, Han treats me to one of his records. His girlfriend notes he is constantly handing out records. “I give just about anything away, whatever the value. I like giving records to people, it’s just one of the best gifts ever. Isn’t it?”

Interview: Koen Galle
Pictures: Thomas Sweertvaegher 
Translation: Charline Stoelzaed